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Flying doors

Every once in a while, I like to visit the Haringvliet. This large inlet of the North Sea, located in the province of South Holland, has a very interesting ecosystem, with loads of inland and shore birds. Large numbers of mergansers and Mediterranean gulls gather on the waterways, while large numbers of warblers and waders forage on the shorelines and reed beds. All this bird activity attracts a variety of raptors: harriers, hawks, and buzzards. It is also home of one of the most spectacular birds of prey that breeds in the Netherlands: the white-tailed eagle. With a wingspan of 2,5 meters, and a rectangular shape while gliding, most birders refer to them with the nickname ‘flying doors’.

Despite their enormous size, getting a good sighting of a white-tailed eagle can be a challenge. They prefer vast, rugged landscapes, and can travel great distances. Spotting a white-tailed eagle is mostly a combination of tons of searching, favorable weather conditions, and a bit of luck. Most sightings are relatively short, or at a considerable distance.

My experiences with these raptors have been mostly like that. Spending hours and hours in hides, scanning the sky, hoping for a big flying rectangle. Most days I left empty handed, and the few times I did see one, it was usually a short sighting over a distance of a couple of hundred meters. But every time I see footage of white-tailed eagle, I get excited again, hoping that one day, I will have a close encounter with one of them.

And so I find myself wandering alongside the Haringvliet once again. This time, I am in good company, since my wife also wants to give spotting a white-tailed eagle a chance. The sun is out, there is very little wind, and there seems to be a lot of thermal. Early on we spot sparrowhawks, marsh harriers, and buzzards gliding on the thermal lift. Suddenly, we hear a lot of noise. Large numbers of greylag geese and other birds fly off, loudly calling. There is clearly some form of panic going on, and that usually means one thing: the presence of a big raptor!

After some sky scanning, we find two big birds in the distance. Two juvenile white-tailed eagles, circling high in the sky. The wind is blowing them in our direction, so maybe, in due time, they might get a bit closer. In the meantime I check the surroundings, because I’ve heard the distinctive call of a Cetti’s warbler nearby. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a raptor flies over our heads, some 30, 40 meters high. My first assumption is ‘probably a buzzard’, but a quick snapshot reveals its true identity: another white-tailed eagle!

The birds in the distance have come a fair bit closer to us, and the third bird joins them for a bit of soaring and gliding action. Luckily for us, they have come down a bit, and are now flying above our heads at about 30 to 40 meters. Now their immense size truly shows.

Two of the ‘flying doors’ are giving us quite a show. Flying together, they attempt to grab one another, and seem to practice transferring prey. In their dives, they come even closer. Getting this close with these enormous, wild birds of prey, is a truly spectacular sight, and mesmerizing experience.

After a couple of circles above our heads, they slowly gain hight again, and glide away in the distance

We continue our walk, and hear a couple of Cetti’s warbler, an early sedge warbler, and a lot of reed buntings. One thing’s for sure though, nothing can beat our encounter with these three eagles today!